The other day a friend told me he had an insight while at the gym in the early morning before going to work. He was watching Fox News and the news commentator said something to the effect that while normally they had only one story to tell to get the listeners fired up, that morning he had five stories to tell. My friend told me he realized that the news, at least on Fox that morning, was not so much about news but about getting people fired up over issues. The stories the commentator offered, relative to all else going on in the world, were not even that significant but all were aimed at the passions and getting ‘the base’ fired up.
Perhaps Lenten effort to reduce the passions pays off and some actually get insights into just how the media plays on our passions. Some of it is because news channels are on the air 24/7 and really don’t have that much significant to say. So they blather on about all kinds of issues which they hope will impassion the listener – just so the listener will stay tuned and come back for more. They aim at getting their audience to react to what they say – not to think about it and whether it is even worth bothering about – but just to react. It is manipulation of the passions.
I was in the car with my son on the same day that my friend spoke to me. Playing on his car radio was a sports talk show. What total insignificant drivel the host blathered on about. Same problem – really not that much to talk about but his job is to fill his time on the airwaves. You need people who can make whatever they are prattling about to sound very exciting – and hopefully to engage the listeners passionately so they will keep listening.
I tuned out of commercial TV and radio long ago. Today when I happen to hear talk shows or news shows I find them boring and mindless and hard to listen to because they often have nothing significant to say, but they have to say it 24/7. As I heard many years ago the real purpose of the shows is to keep you tuned in between commercials which are the real product commercial broadcasting is offering. The ‘show’ just fills the time between commercials. Talk show hosts are thus often nothing more than tricksters aiming to see how long they can keep you listening to their nonsensical jabber. Using emotional tricks – like hitting on something people might get passionate about even if it is insignficant – just to keep you attuned are tools of the trade.
Talk shows and politically driven “news” produce a heavy stream of hooey, hogwash, bunk, rot and rubbish, all to capture your attention in order to shape your mind. Sadly, you are a witting and willing participant every time you tune in. They can’t force themselves into your life, you choose to open the door of your mind to whatever nonsense they broadcast. Even if you react negatively to what is said, they win as long as they keep you listening and reacting.
Much of what passes for news on commercial TV and radio these days is a mixture of sensational leads and headlines to draw you in, presented in an entertaining way to hold your attention, marketing to hijack your emotions, and very intentionally selected stories which aim at not informing you, the listener, but forming you. They are out after your heart and mind. They want you to be passionate about the things they are passionate about. It is formational more than informational. They want to shape how you think in order to get you fired up about what they deem is important. And there are a cadre of organizations which do nothing but test and measure the social climate to tell the media whether they are hitting a nerve with the listeners or not.
Fifteen hundred years before there was commercial media, St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 390AD) said:
“It is in our power to remain unaffected by passion as long as we stay far away from the thing that enflames.”
It is perhaps Lenten advice – stay away from pornography and from commercial media and you will find you can control your passions. The abstinence and fasting of Lent can work to improve our spiritual lives and help us regain control of our thinking by regaining control of our hearts and minds. Don’t let your mind and heart be the slurry pit of commercial or social media!
“Those who look towards the true God receive within themselves the characteristics of the divine nature; so too, those who turn their minds to the vanity of idols are transformed into the objects which they look at.”
Commercial media is trying to form our hearts and minds. And when we pay attention to them, we let them. We enable them to transform our thinking, to enflame our passions, to color our worldview. And what they are offering is not the Gospel, even if they try to convince you it is. We allow our minds to be transformed by the things we turn to. The power of Great Lent or just normal, daily Christian self-denial is to resist the efforts of others to take over our thinking. Turn to God and you will become godly. Keep attuned to the media and you will be “transformed into the objects which you look at.” Not a pretty picture.
I saw an article in the April 2014 edition of THE SMITHSONIAN called, “Fast and Furious.” In the short piece Matthew Shaer comments on studies which have been done measuring how fast various information travels on social media. (And for the sake of full disclosure, just as I don’t watch or listen to commercial media, I’m not on Facebook or Twitter – it is a world I don’t appreciate). The findings of the research:
“Joy moves faster than sadness or disgust, but nothing is speedier than rage. The researchers found that users reacted most angrily – and quickly—to reports concerning ‘social problems and diplomatic issues’… In many cases, these flare ups triggered a chain reaction of anger … in a widening circle of hostility.”
Another study showed that a reaction of sadness to news tended to deactivate people and they would “power down and withdraw.” So the news media which has a political agenda for example does not want people to feel compassion as a result of their stories. That deactivates people. So they tell stories to inflame anger as they know anger might compel people to act, even if in mindless rage. Informing you about what is going on is less important than forming you – shaping how you see the world, what you value, what you despise, what you react to.
While anger is appropriate at times, in our culture it is becoming the sole emotion that politicians and news media want to stir up and then tap into. That is because they too know how anger motivates. Christianity however is more attuned to compassion for those who are suffering. Think about the Good Samaritan story and how it might be retold today by a news outlet to get you angry so that you act as they want you to act. Is the Good Samaritan really nothing more than a parable about imposing health care on everyone? The victim of the beating should have behaved more responsibly in the first place. We are all victims and need government to intervene for us.
Professor Berger was involved in a study of the social media that found one more intriguing fact.
“The one emotion that outpaced anger in Berger’s story was awe, the feelings of wonder and excitement that come from encountering great beauty or knowledge… ‘Awe…increases our desire for emotional connection and drives us to share.”
Perhaps standing in an Orthodox Church, we will be moved by awe to mercy and compassion for others. That would be a great result of Lent, of turning away from being formed by the media, to being transformed by awe as we see the face of God in icons painted and living.